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Communications of the ACM


New Threats to Society from Free-Speech Social Media Platforms

darts projected from a megaphone, illustration

Credit: Jasmina Buinac

The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 resulted in five deaths, turning it into what some have labeled an unprecedented attack on democracy.10 Recent evidence documented the attack was partially coordinated through free-speech social media platforms (so-called "alt-techs").10 Alt-techs such as Parler, Gab, and Telegram constitute new information, communication, and socialization ecosystems, which lack content moderation, and thus provide a parallel online space for ideas that are outside the boundaries of speech permitted on mainstream platforms. As a result, alt-techs facilitate the circulation of biased, inaccurate, misleading, and conspiratorial content at unprecedented levels and, furthermore, have attracted large numbers of partisan users and extremists. As seen in the example of the attack on the U.S. Capitol and evidence from other violent incidents, the recent emergence of alt-techs might even have dangerous effects on the offline world, including democracies as a whole.

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What Are Alt-Techs?

Alt-techs have emerged as a new social media phenomenon.9 Prominent examples include Parler (, Gab (, 4chan (, 8chan (, Voat (, Gettr (, BitChute (, Telegram (, Discord (, and Mastodon ( These are part of the broader alt-tech ecosystem that provides alternative websites, platforms, and services specifically targeted toward certain, often partisan or fringe, communities. The features of alt-techs are typically not innovative in themselves but rather offer services largely similar in functionality to those found on mainstream platforms (for example, Twitter, Facebook). However, different from mainstream social media, alt-techs self-proclaim as "free-speech" platforms and, because of that, eschew content moderation so users can post content that would not be permitted on mainstream social media.


David Tonhofer


In a article about "misinformation" and "disinformation", I read with some astonishment as the first (!) phrase:

> The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 resulted in five deaths, turning it into what some have labeled an unprecedented attack on democracy.

While the second part of the sentence is definitely true and the people responsible for such outrageous hyperbole should be held to proper account, the "five deaths" mentioned are, I am happy to reveal, just rank disinformation.

Let's turn to the NYT ("These Are the People Who Died in Connection With the Capitol Riot"), frankly a shadow of its former self of 20 years ago or so, and nowadays a rank partisan outlet, but sufficient for our means. I will paraphrase and shorten and give you the following list:

- Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, killed by an (unidentified) Capitol Police officer (gunshot wound to the neck from 2m away).
- Kevin D. Greeson, died of a heart attack.
- Rosanne Boyland, crushed in a stampede then died of an overdose, allegedly.
- Benjamin Philips, died of a stroke.
And in the days and weeks after the riot:
- Officer Brian D. Sicknick of the Capitol Police died (of natural causes as far as we know)
- Officer Jeffrey Smith of the Metropolitan Police Department, committed suicide
- Officer Howard S. Liebengood of the Capitol Police, committed suicide

We thus conclude that

> The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 resulted in 1 violent death among the protestors at the hand of Capitol Police.

I do hope the authors will take the time to submit a correction to lessen the cognitive dissonance currently existing between the subject and the opening phrase.

With best regards,

-- David Tonhofer

Russ White

This article needs a lot of corrections, such as calling what happened on January 6th an "insurrection," and implying the five people who died were all somehow government actors killed in the process of this "insurrection." This is a rather dishonest framing.

Further, I note that all the "alt tech" sites mentioned are perceived to be "right wing." The authors could add a lot more balance by mentioning some of the left-wing alt-tech sites, and not implying the definition of "misinformation" is "anything a government authority does not approve of." In fact, the entire point of free speech is to counter the "official narrative" with other views and opinions, often backed up by facts not reported elsewhere.

For instance, in the case of a local train derailment the "official story" might be that no harmful substances were spilled. People who live in the area, however, might know about specific incidents that counter or discredit the official narrative. In the view of "misinformation" accepted in the article, the local reporters are "radical" and "dangerous," and should (rightly) be removed from any access to a broader audience.

This is all counter to the purposes of free speech, and counter to the founding ideals of the technology world.

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